Turkey slammed its doors to travelers from Britain on Friday, saying that it had found 15 infections with the new, more transmissible variant of the virus that first emerged in England. All were among recent arrivals from the United Kingdom.
Turkey’s health minister, Fahrettin Koca, issued a statement saying that the 15 people infected with the variant were in isolation and that their contacts were being traced and placed under quarantine. In countrywide checks, the statement said, the virus had not been detected in anyone other than travelers who arrived from Britain.
The finding brings the number of countries that have detected the variant to at least 33 since Britain announced finding it on Dec. 8, and the number of countries barring travelers arriving from Britain to more than 40. Some countries are also imposing restrictions on travelers, including U.S. citizens, who in recent weeks visited the countries where the variant has been detected.
The Philippines expanded restrictions on travelers from Britain and 18 other countries, adding the United States after a third state, Florida, reported an infection involving the variant. Many countries have already restricted travel from the United States because of its staggering number of infections — the most in the world.
California and Colorado have also found cases involving the variant. None of those infected in the United States had traveled recently, so the new strain is clearly circulating, though at unknown levels.
The variant, known as B.1.1.7., has not been known to lead to more severe cases of Covid-19, but its circulation is likely to portend more infections and more hospitalizations at a time when many countries are already battling surges in caseloads and anticipating more from holiday gatherings and travel.
The list of countries that have identified infections with the variant has been growing rapidly, and as of Friday includes — besides the United States, Britain and Turkey — Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates.
In South Africa, a similar version of the virus has emerged, sharing one of the mutations seen in B.1.1.7., according to scientists who detected it. That variant, known as 501.V2, has been found in up to 90 percent of the samples whose genetic sequences have been analyzed in South Africa since mid-November.
The British authorities said they have detected two cases of the variant identified in South Africa. In both cases, the infected people had been in contact with people who had traveled to Britain from South Africa in recent weeks. Switzerland, Finland, Australia, Zambia and France have also detected the variant.
And on Dec. 24, the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, announced the discovery of yet another variant, this one in Nigeria, called B.1.207.
A more contagious form of the coronavirus is churning in the United States.
First identified in Britain, the variant already accounts for more than 60 percent of new coronavirus cases in London and its neighboring areas, and there’s worry the variant could further exacerbate cases in the U.S. and place greater strain on an already strained health care system.
A variant that spreads more easily also means that people will need to religiously adhere to precautions like social distancing, mask-wearing, hand hygiene and improved ventilation — unwelcome news to many Americans already chafing against restrictions.
We asked experts to weigh in on the evolving research into this new version of the coronavirus. Here’s what they had to say.
The new variant seems to spread more easily between people.
The new variant, known as B.1.1.7, seems to infect more people than earlier versions of the coronavirus, even when the environments are the same.
Scientists initially estimated that the new variant was 70 percent more transmissible, but a recent modeling study pegged that number at 56 percent. Once researchers sift through all the data, it’s possible that the variant will turn out to be just 10 to 20 percent more transmissible, said Trevor Bedford, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Even so, Dr. Bedford said, it is likely to catch on rapidly and become the predominant form in the United States by March.
The variant behaves like earlier versions.
So far, at least, the variant does not seem to make people any sicker or lead to more deaths. Still, there is cause for concern: A variant that is more transmissible will increase the death toll simply because it will spread faster and infect more people.
The routes of transmission — by large and small droplets, and tiny aerosolized particles adrift in crowded indoor spaces — have not changed.
Infection with the new variant may increase the amount of virus in the body.
Some preliminary evidence from Britain suggests that people infected with the new variant tend to carry greater amounts of the virus in their noses and throats than those infected with previous versions.
That finding offers one possible explanation for why the new variant spreads more easily: The more virus that infected people harbor in their noses and throats, the more they expel into the air and onto surfaces when they breathe, talk, sing, cough or sneeze.
With previous versions of the virus, contact tracing suggested that about 10 percent of people who have close contact with an infected person — within six feet for at least 15 minutes — inhaled enough virus to become infected.
“With the variant, we might expect 15 percent of those,” Dr. Bedford said. “Currently risky activities become more risky.”
Scientists are still learning how the mutations have changed the virus.
Each infected person offers opportunities for the virus to mutate as it multiplies. With more than 83 million people infected worldwide, the coronavirus is amassing mutations faster than scientists expected at the start of the pandemic.
The vast majority of mutations provide no advantage to the virus and die out. But mutations that improve the virus’s fitness or transmissibility have a greater chance to catch on.
At least one of the 17 new mutations in the variant contributes to its greater contagiousness. The mechanism is not yet known. Some data suggest that the new variant may bind more tightly to a protein on the surface of human cells, allowing it to more readily infect them.
Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a scientific adviser to the British government, said it’s important to look at evidence “as preliminary and accumulating.”
But one thing is for sure, mitigation efforts will need to remain a priority.
“We need to be much more careful over all, and look at the gaps in our mitigation measures,” said Dr. Cevik said.
Amid a sputtering vaccine rollout, an onslaught of cases and fears of a new, highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus, Britain has quietly updated its vaccination playbook to allow for a mix-and-match vaccine regimen. If a second dose of the vaccine a patient originally received isn’t available, or if the manufacturer of the first shot isn’t known, health officials said, another vaccine may be substituted.
But it is far from certain that the vaccines are so interchangeable, several researchers warned.
“There are no data on this idea whatsoever,” said John Moore, a vaccine expert at Cornell University. Officials in Britain “seem to have abandoned science completely now and are just trying to guess their way out of a mess.”
In a separate, controversial move, the British government this week also decided to front-load its vaccine rollout, delivering as many first doses to people as possible — a decision that could delay second shots up to 12 weeks.
Britain, which is seeing tens of thousands of new infections reported each day, has issued emergency authorizations for two vaccines, one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech and the other by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca. According to the new guidance, “every effort should be made” to complete a dosing regimen with the same shot first used. But when “the same vaccine is not available, or if the first product received is unknown, it is reasonable to offer one dose of the locally available product” the second time around.
“This option is preferred if the individual is likely to be at immediate high risk or is considered unlikely to attend again,” the recommendations say. Because both vaccines target the spike protein of the coronavirus, “it is likely the second dose will help to boost the response to the first dose.”
The new guidance contradicts guidelines in the United States, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted that the authorized Covid-19 vaccines “are not interchangeable,” and that “the safety and efficacy of a mixed-product series have not been evaluated. Both doses of the series should be completed with the same product.”
Some scientists say Britain is gambling with its new guidance. “None of this is being data driven right now,” said Dr. Phyllis Tien, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco. “We’re kind of in this Wild West.”
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN on Friday that the United States would not follow Britain’s lead in front-loading first vaccine injections, potentially delaying the administration of second doses.
Britain announced a plan this week to delay second shots of its two authorized vaccines, developed by Pfizer and AstraZeneca, in an attempt to dole out to more people the partial protection conferred by a single dose.
“I would not be in favor of that,” Dr. Fauci told CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
His opinion was met with approval by some experts, including Dr. Eric Topol, a clinical trials expert at the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, who tweeted, “That’s good because that it’s following what we know, the trial data with extraordinary 95 percent efficacy, avoiding extrapolation and the unknowns.”
While clinical trials tested the efficacy of second doses delivered three or four weeks after the first, British officials said they would allow a gap of up to 12 weeks. Such delays have not been rigorously tested in trials. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, for instance, was shown to be 95 percent effective at preventing Covid-19 when administered as two doses, three weeks apart.
Straying from this regimen “is like going into the Wild West,” said Dr. Phyllis Tien, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco. “It needs to be data driven if they’re going to make a change.”
Widening the gap between vaccine doses could risk blunting the benefits of the second shot, which is intended to boost the body’s defenses against the coronavirus, increasing the strength and durability of the immune response. In the interim, the protective effects of the first shot could also wane faster than anticipated.
“We don’t really know what happens when you only have one dose after, like, a month,” said Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida. “It’s just not the way it was tested.”
The United States begins the new year far behind schedule in its coronavirus vaccine rollout, having distributed shots to a mere fraction of the 20 million it had hoped to reach by this time, even as the nation hit a grim new milestone on New Year’s Eve: 20 million cases since the start of the pandemic.
In a statement uploaded to his website on Friday, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah said it was “as incomprehensible as it is inexcusable” that “comprehensive vaccination plans have not been developed at the federal level and sent to the states as models.”
The statement is the strongest criticism to date of the Trump administration’s handling of the vaccine rollout from a Republican senator.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2.8 million people have received their first dose, though that number may be somewhat low because of lags in reporting. Federal officials say they do not fully understand the cause of the delays and have denied that they are to blame. Officials behind Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to fast-track vaccines, have said that their job is to ensure that vaccines are made available and get shipped out to the states. The states are then expected to carry the baton.
Mr. Romney called it “unrealistic to assume” that already overtaxed health care workers could take on the responsibility of vaccinating the nation, and criticized the plan to have CVS and Walgreens to carry out mass inoculations.
“They don’t have excess personnel available to inoculate millions of Americans,” Mr. Romney continued. “Nor are they equipped to deal with the rare but serious reactions which may occur.”
Mr. Romney offered several loose ideas, such as training every otherwise unoccupied medical professional, retired or active, to administer vaccines and establishing a schedule based on a patient’s priority category and birth date.
“I have experience organizing a major logistical event but nothing on the scale of what is called for today,” Mr. Romney added. “Nor do I have any relevant medical or public health experience. But I know that when something isn’t working, you need to acknowledge reality and develop a plan — particularly when hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake.”
Health officials and hospital leaders throughout the country have pointed to several factors for lags in the vaccination campaign.
People have been off work and clinics have had reduced hours during the holidays. States have held back doses to be given out to their nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, an effort that is just gearing up and expected to take several months. Across the country, just 8 percent of the doses distributed for use in these facilities have been administered, with two million yet to be given.
The rollout has been marked not only by delays, but by confusion, blunders and worse.
In one case, 42 people in West Virginia who were scheduled to receive the coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday were instead mistakenly injected with an experimental monoclonal antibody treatment.
In another, a pharmacist at a Wisconsin hospital was arrested for allegedly removing hundreds of vaccine doses from refrigeration, intentionally spoiling them. No motive has yet been specified, but officials said that the pharmacist knew that the his action would mean that people who received the ruined doses would think they were protected when they weren’t.
The United States is not alone in stumbling to distribute vaccines. President Emmanuel Macron of France faces growing criticism for the sluggishness of France’s rollout. Fewer than 200 people have received doses there since Sunday, when the European Union officially began its campaign to distribute shots to its 410 million citizens. Germany has inoculated nearly 80,000 over the same period.
By contrast, the pace of Israel’s vaccination program is far outstripping the rest of the world. Nearly 10 percent of Israel’s population has received the first of two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine after the program began there on Dec. 20.
When Eric Vanderlee, a registered nurse from Canton, S.D., went to administer the Covid-19 vaccine to his boyfriend, Robby Vargas-Cortes, an E.M.S. supervisor, he was met with a welcome surprise waiting up Robby’s left sleeve — an engagement ring.
Mr. Vargas-Cortes, who had taped an engagement ring to the top of his left arm, proposed to Mr. Vanderlee on Dec. 23 and received an emotional, “Yes,” before giving his now fiancé his Covid-19 vaccine.
The proposal, which was captured on video and has received more than 4,000 likes on Facebook, was met with glee from Mr. Vanderlee’s co-workers, who seemed just as surprised he did.
“It’s been kind of a crazy year, and you know it’s been a fun ride to have you in my life,” Mr. Vargas-Cortes, 31, said as he proposed.
Mr. Vanderlee, 26, said in an interview that the proposal caught him completely off-guard.
The couple, who have been together for almost five years, said they often joked about getting engaged, but amid the pandemic, it became hard to think about planning a surprise. But then Mr. Vanderlee asked to help administer the vaccines, and, Mr. Vargas-Cortes said he thought to himself, “Well, what better opportunity?”
Their engagement offered a bright spot in a rather dim year. Back in November, Mr. Vanderlee’s grandfather died from complications of Covid-19, becoming one of over 347,000 Covid-19-related deaths in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic, according to a New York Times database.
“He was the healthiest guy,” Mr. Vanderlee said. “He had no issues, and all of a sudden he was gone.”
The couple said they’ve been humbled by the amount of “outpouring of love and support” they’ve received online from their engagement.
“This just brought a new wave of joy,” Mr. Vanderlee said.
Faced with a resurgence of Covid-19 infections, French authorities pulled out all the stops to ensure that France would step into 2021 in safety. An existing nationwide overnight curfew was enforced on New Years’s Eve by some 130,000 police officers; all public celebrations were banned and the government advised to limit private gatherings to six people.
That did not prevent some 2,500 partygoers from attending an illegal New Year rave near the city of Rennes, in northwestern France.
A statement from local authorities said that many of the revelers were still on the site of the illegal party on Friday morning and that police had failed to stop it. Paramedics were deployed around the site to distribute gel and masks in a bid to limit the risks of coronavirus contaminations and prosecutors announced that they opened an investigation into the illegal organization of the event.
Police officers tried to prevent the rave “but faced fierce hostility from many partygoers,” the statement read, adding that stones and bottles were thrown at them and that a police car was set on fire.
The rave near Rennes, and some other large-scale illegal parties throughout France that were broken up by the police, sparked concern about the spread of the coronavirus, as the country still suffers from the second wave of the pandemic.
With more than 2.6 million confirmed cases of coronavirus — the highest number of cases in Europe — and some 65,000 deaths, France has paid a heavy toll to the pandemic.
On Thursday, health authorities announced that a first case of a new coronavirus variant linked to South Africa had been reported in France, while the seven-day average of new daily infections cases has surpassed 13,000 — more than double the government’s daily target of 5,000 new infections to ease restrictions.
To fight back a rise in infections in parts of the country, French authorities on Friday announced that it would bring forward by two hours the nighttime curfew in 15 of France’s 101 departments, or administrative divisions. The curfew will be at 6 p.m. rather than 8 p.m., starting on Saturday.
With hospitals still struggling to cope with the second wave of the pandemic and while authorities fear that end-of-year holiday gatherings will result in a rebound of Covid-19 infections, the French government is under pressure to act.
In a note submitted to the government on Dec. 23 and made public on Tuesday, France’s scientific council — a government advisory body for the Covid-19 crisis — recommended to act swiftly in the face of a “possible” resumption of the pandemic that could soon be “out of control.”
The French government has for the moment ruled out a return to a full lockdown, despite pressure from some local authorities, but Olivier Véran, France’s health minister, warned that a relaxation of the restrictions that have forced bars, restaurants, museums and theaters to close is likely to be delayed.
“At this stage, and depending on the evolution in the coming days, it seems hardly conceivable to lift all the restrictions,” Mr. Véran said.
In the grip of a pandemic that has disrupted lives and the economy, many Americans eschewed the customary trappings of New Year’s Eve festivities for subdued observances, much as they have spent much of 2020 — away from loved ones, in virtual settings or alone.
Forget the soirees of previous years, the prix fixe dinner seatings, open bars and streets crowded with revelers: Times Square was empty, a jarring image of how so much has changed since the last ball drop.
As 2021 approached, there were dozens of voices — not hundreds of thousands — counting down the final 10 seconds of the year. Confetti still rained down, but the multicolored strips landed primarily on the pavement rather than people’s shoulders. Instead of a steady rumble of cheers and screams, there were infrequent cries of happiness amid the booms of fireworks.
But none of that ruined the palpable excitement of those present.
Alexis Hurley of Hell’s Kitchen grew emotional on a nearby street as midnight approached. “This has honestly been the worst year of my life and a lot of my friends’ lives,” Ms. Hurley said. “It’s just this relief and hope that things will get better.”
In another Manhattan — Manhattan Beach, Calif. — Kara Maeda and her two roommates said they were content to spend a low-key night at home, drinking White Claw and eating sushi. They said the past year had changed their priorities.
“This year,” Ms. Maeda said, “we really slowed down and think about what really matters.”
And in Denver, Alison Stine, a novelist and journalist who moved from Ohio in August, helped organize a Zoom call to celebrate the 10th birthday of her son, Henry.
“It’s been really hard moving in a pandemic, especially for him to make friends,” Ms. Stine said. “It’s really hard to meet new people over the computer.”
Ms. Stine, 42, said her son wore a funny hat and played the video game Among Us with his friends. They planned to light sparklers later. “That’s what we have right now,” she said, “these small moments.”
Things looked a lot different elsewhere, too. Airports were about three-quarters less busy than on New Year’s Eve last year, and the Transportation Safety Administration counted fewer than a million people passing through its checkpoints for the first time since Christmas Day.
Thousands usually flock to Las Vegas for New Year’s Eve. This year, casinos and restaurants were still open with limited capacity, but some fireworks shows were canceled. Tickets for a downtown event — featuring a light show and a zip line — that had been planned for about 14,000 people were refunded this week after consultation with health officials. Only those staying in certain nearby hotels were allowed access.
The transit authority in Chicago is known to offer free rides on New Year’s Eve — but it didn’t this year, when restaurants and bars were ordered to close by 11 p.m. Despite the cold, one house party opted to go drive-in style outside with masks and social distancing.
A senior minister in Ontario’s cabinet has resigned after vacationing in the Caribbean as residents of Canada’s most populous province were being urged to stay home.
Rod Phillips, who was named Ontario’s finance minister in 2018, told reporters that his trip was a “dumb, dumb mistake” when he arrived back in Toronto on Thursday, after being summoned home by Doug Ford, Ontario’s premier.
Shortly afterward, Mr. Ford said that he had accepted Mr. Phillips’s resignation. From the start of the pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Liberal, has urged Canadians to avoid nonessential travel out of the country — and when announcing a province-wide shutdown that started Dec. 26, Mr. Ford, a Progressive Conservative, told residents to stay home “to the fullest extent possible.”
Mr. Phillips, and his wife, went to the French territory of Saint Barthélemy, which is commonly known as St. Barts, on Dec. 13. He left behind a series of photos and videos that were posted on social media during his absence, and several political opponents said that the posts were intended to create the illusion that Mr. Phillips was celebrating the holidays in Canada. The images appear to have been made at Mr. Phillips’s home in suburban Toronto. He is now under a mandatory 14-day quarantine there.
Mr. Ford initially claimed that he knew nothing about his minister’s travel until it was reported in by the news media. But at a subsequent news conference, he acknowledged that he had been aware of Mr. Phillips’s absence for about two weeks.
Across New York City, the coronavirus has continued its winter surge, with a daily average of nearly 4,000 cases and about 40 deaths for the last week. Yet the rollout of vaccinations that was meant to restore a semblance of normalcy has gotten off to a slow start.
More than 340,000 doses of the vaccine have been delivered to the city, but for now their distribution does not resemble the sort of mass mobilization many imagined. And public health experts say that there is urgent need to speed up the pace of vaccinations in New York, given the possibility that officials may soon detect the more contagious variant of the virus first identified in Britain and now known to be in three U.S. states and dozens of countries around the world.
In the first 17 days of the vaccination rollout, about 88,140 people across the city’s five boroughs received the first of two doses, the equivalent of only about 1 percent of the city’s population. Those vaccinated thus far have overwhelmingly been hospital employees, residents and workers at nursing homes, and the staff at certain health clinics. The city has yet to open any large vaccination sites.
On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city still aimed to administer doses to one million people by the end of January. He has suggested that the state is acting as a bottleneck by not authorizing the city to open up vaccinations to larger categories of people.
“If we’re given the authorization, we can move very quickly,” Mr. de Blasio said. “We need the state guidance in terms of the categories of people, and the more that expands, the faster we can go.”
Dr. Ronald Scott Braithwaite, a professor at N.Y.U. Grossman School of Medicine who has been modeling New York City’s epidemic and is an adviser to the city, said his team’s analysis suggested that once 10 to 20 percent of the city was vaccinated, the number of new cases would begin to drop — so long as social distancing and mask wearing remained constant and the new variant did not find a foothold in New York. But achieving that goal is still a long way off.
“If the new variant replaces the existing variant and we don’t vaccinate quickly, the second wave will start cresting again and will crest really high, and that’s something to take really seriously,” Dr. Braithwaite said.
The world hit a few more pandemic milestones this week with the distribution of the coronavirus vaccines developed by Moderna and by Pfizer and BioNTech; the advancement of trials studying other experimental shots; and the approval or authorization of coronavirus vaccines in several countries. The welcome news comes as the number of known infections worldwide rises toward 83 million.
Britain announced on Wednesday that it had granted emergency authorization to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The vaccine is less expensive than others — $3 to $4 a dose — and can be stored in a normal refrigerator, unlike some of its freezer-bound counterparts, making it easier to transport and administer. The vaccine is meant to be given in two doses four weeks apart, but Britain plans to wait up to 12 weeks to give the second shot, freeing up more doses for first injections. Some early evidence suggests the delay might boost the vaccine’s ability to protect people from Covid-19, though experts have repeatedly cautioned that more data is needed.
The state-owned Chinese company Sinopharm announced that one of its experimental vaccines, developed by the Beijing Institute of Biological Products, had an efficacy rate of 79 percent based on an interim analysis of Phase 3 trials, spurring the Chinese government to grant the shot full approval. The vaccine has also been approved in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The company has yet to publish the detailed results of its late-stage clinical trials.
Novavax, based in Maryland, announced on Monday the start of a late-stage clinical trial that will enroll about 30,000 people in the United States and Mexico. Two-thirds of the volunteers in the study will receive the company’s vaccine; the other 10,000 will get a shot of a saline solution as a placebo. Like many other vaccines, Novavax’s vaccine requires two doses. The vaccine can be kept stable in a normal refrigerator.
The World Health Organization gave the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine an emergency stamp of approval on Thursday, the first one granted to a Covid-19 vaccine. Placing it on the organization’s Emergency Use Listing will allow the vaccine to move more quickly through regulatory approval in countries around the world. The step will also allow the vaccine to be distributed through Unicef and the Pan-American Health Organization.